Thursday, August 12, 2010


Throughout the 1960s, Nagisa Oshima shifted from color to black-and-white as the requirements of his material dictated. In the five-film Oshima's Outlaw Sixties collection from Criterion Eclipse, 1965's luridly colorful Pleasures of the Flesh is followed by this monochromatically sordid, somewhat noirish, somewhat satirical story of a serial rapist. Film historians find it noteworthy for the intensity of its montage. This 99-minute movie has something like 2,000 separate shots, which made it look more radical in its own time, probably, than it does in retrospect. In some parts the pacing seems pretty much normal by 21st century standards -- think of a more intellectual Michael Bay. In others, the rapid editing has the same fracturing, disorienting effect that I presume Oshima intended.

Violence at Noon opens with the latest crime of the so-called "High Noon Attacker." His victim, the housemaid Shino, recognizes him at first as Eisuke, a man she knew (quite intimately, we'll learn) from her village past. Eventually it dawns on her that her old acquaintance is Japan's most wanted criminal, but by then he's ready to overpower her, bind her and rape her. He then goes on to kill her employer before fleeing.

Strangely, Shino plays a double game with police investigators. While appearing to cooperate with them, she doesn't divulge her knowledge of the HNA's true identity. Instead, she starts firing off letters to Eisuke's wife Matsuko, a schoolteacher, tipping her off about hubby's criminal career. Matsuko also keeps mum, and as the women correspond, the police investigate, and Eisuke keeps on raping, we learn the history that holds the triangle together.

Kei Sato as Eisuke, the "High Noon Attacker"

Oshima's film, based on a novel itself inspired by true crimes, becomes a peculiar portrait of the pathologies of communal living. Our three protagonists once lived in a model village run on communal principles. Both women were involved with Genji, an ambivalent politician who runs for office while dreaming of romantic suicide. Genji asks Matsuko to marry her and threatens to kill himself with his homemade noose if she won't. She laughs at him. He then invites Shino to die with him. Her family had threatened collective suicide during earlier hard times, but Genji had bailed them out. Though she has chores to do, Shino decides to go along and hang herself with a kind of "why not?" attitude. But while Genji hangs himself properly, Shino's branch breaks.

Above, Akiko Koyama as Matsuko; below, Saeda Kawaguchi as Shino. The rope remains the same.

Eisuke, a local malcontent, has been tailing the pair at Matsuko's request. He presumes Shino dead as she hits the ground and closes in to verify his suspicion. Satisfied with his diagnosis, he indulges in a bit of highly sweaty supposed necrophilia. It's only after he ports her body to a riverbank (to dump it in?) that Shino revives. She nearly drowns the man in her fury when she realizes what he did to her. While village leaders cover up Genji's suicide (he'd won his election by a landslide), Shino leaves for the big city, leaving Matsuko and Eisuke to form their own perversely indifferent alliance before he in turn embarks on his rape tour of Japan.

Oshima seems to be saying something about the dangerous intimacy that arises in self-consciously voluntary experimental communities like the one that produced Eisuke and friends. But any philosophical or simply satirical point he meant to make is arguably undercut by his conception of Shino as a kind of passive, almost brainless femme fatale. Shino is one of the weirdest teases I've seen in cinema, because what she teases is death. She promises death but doesn't deliver, usually through no fault of her own. By the end of the film, you might be excused for thinking that she can't die -- though I should quickly add that there's no supernatural implications whatsoever involved. But she seems to sap other people's will to live, or tip their moral balance, as if she were a succubus or a vamp in the Theda Bara mode. Her family doesn't follow through on their suicide threat. She fails to hang herself at Genji's side. Her unwitting simulation of death apparently inspires Eisuke's compulsion to rape. Finally she draws Matsuko into her morbid orbit as the movie builds to a climax not of suspense, but of pathological inevitability.

Is Shino a product of her social environment or does her strangeness help doom that social experiment? I don't have the analytical equipment to judge, and I'm not sure if Oshima himself intended to give us a definite answer. Violence at Noon lacks the simple ironies of Pleasures of the Flesh, and the extent to which Violence gives you more food for thought may determine whether it's the superior film of the two. Stylistically, Violence is certainly more of a jolt. Oshima employs camera movements and camera angles as well as a multitude of cuts to focus our attention on every potentially significant character detail, lingering most often on Eisuke's face as his eyes blink and roll, his lips go limp or sneer, and the sweat runs freely. The most disquieting camera movements are among the most simple. On a train, as Shino and Matsuko contemplate a suicide pact, the camera simply drifts queasily. Then Oshima cuts and starts the camera drifting again. Whatever you think of the story, Oshima's pictorial ambition is undeniable. As social commentary, psychoanalysis, or emotional freakshow, Violence at Noon is very much a mixed bag. As cinema, it might be more than the sum of its parts. That's for movie buffs to determine on their own.

The trailer was uploaded to YouTube by WorldCinemateque:


W.B. Kelso said...

I just caught this the other day, and I think you hit the nail on the head with the "food for thought" comment. Only here, Oshima provides too much food that, in the end, over-stuffed, I can't for the life of me remember what I ate.

Samuel Wilson said...

W.B., I think it's okay for Oshima to leave us with an ambiguous conclusion, but the strangeness of Shino's fatal attractions makes his whole dish harder to digest than perhaps it should be.